The design community loves to talk about latest trends in design, and while I enjoy reading about why Material Design is different-and-not-better as much as the next designer, what’s more useful is understanding how these design trends are actually formed and the factors at play that shape their diffusion within the design community — and by extension, the visual landscape of society as a whole.
To understand and frame the trends we see in design, we can look to well-established theories on fashion. Georg Simmel’s contribution to sociology and fashion theory established him synonymously with the field of study and is today considered a pivotal academic responsible for offering some of the most revolutionary insights into the study of modernity.
His essay 1905 The Philosophy of Fashion proposes the function of the trickle-down theory in fashion study and establishes social contexts for fashion diffusion.
Design and the trickle-down theory
In his essay, Simmel describes fashion as affected by the ‘trickle-down theory’ and proposes the notion of equilibrium between two subordinate social groups he describes as the ‘upper strata’ and ‘lower strata’.
The upper strata is described as the group that has access to the ‘latest fashion’ that turn away from the fashion the moment the lower strata “begin to appropriate their style — and thereby step the demarcation line which the upper strata have drawn and destroy the uniformity of their coherence symbolised in this fashion”.
The nature of the relationship between these two social groups is described by Simmel in that:
The essence of fashion consists in the fact that it should always be exercised by only a part of a given group, the great majority of whom are merely on the road to adopting it. As soon as a fashion has become universally adopted, that is, as soon as anything that was originally done by only a few has really come to be practised by all — as is the case in certain elements of clothing and in various forms of social conduct — we no longer characterise it as fashion.
Simmel’s observations on the causal nature of fashion echoes similarities to the trends we’ve seen in user interface design over the last few years. Let’s look at skeuomorphic design, which had been around for some time before the release of the first iPhone. However, it wasn’t until Apple pioneered skeuomorphic design in the first releases of iOS for iPhone that skeuomorphism gained popularity in the design community.
Apple, seen by many as being synonymous with design and the ‘latest fashion’, if we use Simmel’s analogy, are viewed as the ‘upper strata’ when it comes to design and innovation. Naturally, we saw skeuomorphic user interfaces in third party apps for iOS, albeit largely because of Apple’s user interface guidelines. However, Apple’s push for skeuomorphic design trickled down to see skeuomorphic elements start to appear in user interface design, not only on mobile, but in desktop software and website design.
As soon as the fashion of the moment is practised by the masses, we no longer characterise it as fashion.
If we examine Apple as a brand, their emphasis on design excellence and a premium product has in and of itself established Apple as a fashionable commodity. There is the perpetual expectation from designers, but also the company’s shareholders, and one could even now argue, society as a whole, that Apple is continuously innovating in their products and design. As Simmel articulates it, as soon as the fashion of the moment is practised by the masses, we no longer characterise it as fashion.
With skeuomorphic design becoming the appropriated trend of the moment, and with the mounting expectations of Apple to innovate to remain fashionable, we see what Simmel describes as the ‘lower strata’ overstepping the demarcation line which the ‘upper strata’ have drawn and the destruction of the uniformity of the coherence symbolised in the trend. With these factors at play, we see Apple’s shift from skeuomorphism to the more flat style of user interface in the most recent versions of iOS.
Another example that we can look to is the now familiar hamburger-menu-slide-out-drawer user interface pattern. This pattern first gained significant notoriety when it was included in the mobile versions of Path and Facebook. The reach that both these services had at the time meant that they were dictating the hamburger menu as the ‘latest fashion’, and it soon trickled down to become the default standard for showing navigation and additional options in mobile applications.
Simmel’s analysis falls apart when we realise that the hamburger menu is still ubiquitous today. It has become a universally adopted pattern for mobile navigation and shows little sign of becoming unfashionable, or as Simmel puts it, overstepping the demarcation between the upper and lower strata. I highlight this to acknowledge the difference between trends in style and trends in form.
Trends in style, like in fashion, are subjective and are largely a matter of personal taste. However, trends in form set characteristics, standards of affordance and semantic frameworks that influence how a person interacts with a product or object. It’s important to acknowledge that Simmel’s writings on the trickle-down theory refer mostly to understanding trends in style. However, Simmel does establish contexts and patterns of diffusion that can help us understand how trends in form, like the hamburger menu, get adopted by the masses.
Slave to design trends
Simmel also observes fashion’s ability to exert specific aesthetic demands on social groups. He describes the notion of what we know as being a slave to fashion, a term used to describe contemporary fashion and consumer behaviour. Simmel explains:
It is characteristic of the slave to fashion that he carries the tendency of a particular fashion beyond the otherwise self-contained limits. If pointed shoes are in style, then he wears shoes that resemble spear tips; if pointed collars are all the rage, he wears collars that reach up to his ears […]
Those who identify their fashion with that of the hipster subculture are representing something totally individual that consists in, what Simmel describes, as the “quantitative intensification of such elements as are qualitatively common property of the given social circle”. The diffusion of fashion is led by those social groups at front of the innovation, they “lead the way, but all travel the same road”.
Using Simmel’s analogy we can explore a number of aesthetic demands that designers have been slaves to. The ‘hipster’ visual aesthetic that somehow has come to encompass everything synonymous with hand-made, authentic and artisanal, has become ubiquitous in recent years.
We’ve seen the iconography of crosses, hand-drawn arrows, moustaches and vintage typography incorporated into brand marks and identities of everything from the local coffee shop, bar, and café to the campaigns of big multi-nationals like McDonald’s.
Ironically, the ‘hipster’ aesthetic has trickled-down to become so pervasive to the point where it no longer carries the handcrafted, original and artisanal attributes it stood for.
This is not to say that being a slave to design trends is inherently bad or an indication of poor design, it is purely a way of characterising the buy-in to a trend from the designers of the moment. Other design trends that we’ve arguably been slaves to include starbursts, highly textured patterns, reflective surfaces, the grunge aesthetic, swirls and flourishes — just to name a few.
Looking outside of digital design to other disciplines, like fashion, can help us broaden our understanding and inform our practice as designers. The theories that shape trends in fashion present us with a way to understand and think about why the design trend of the moment exists and provoke us to think critically about the social contexts that influence the diffusion of design trends.
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